Recently in an exchange with that excellent novelist, James Robertson, over Burns's use of 'ithers' in 'To A Louse,' I mentioned that even the great James Bridie gets this wrong: it should be 'others' in Burns's poem. Most Scottish writers should not be trusted with historic Scottish literature. As an academic, the fallacy that increasingly annoys me is the equation of Scottish writers' knowledge of Scottish writing just because they are a part of it.
One day I will write a piece that provides lengthy chapter and verse on this: the bad judgement about, the poor editing of, Scottish literature by a legion of Scottish writers. But for now, the point I'd want to make is that Bridie is not one of those Scottish writers usually mistaken about Scottish literature. His 'ithers' slip is a mere aberration.
James Bridie (1888-1951) is one of Scotland's most successful cultural activists and her greatest dramatist of the 20th century. These days, however, his work is seldom performed. His is a name almost 'disappeared' when people speak about Scottish culture, literature and drama. Bridie's reputation has been in recession for a long time.
From a bourgeois background, a scion of the family involved in 'Mavor and Coulson' manufacturers of mining engineering equipment, Osborne Henry Mavor (as Bridie was born), studied medicine at Glasgow University. In his professional life as a consultant physician, he goes down in Scottish literary history – notoriously – as his country's only writer to enjoy regularly the services of a chauffeur. His rich earnings though do not match anything like those of several other Scottish writers, including his near-contemporary A J Cronin or Ian Rankin today.
Bridie more evidently than a Cronin or a Rankin is also part of the establishment. Founding chairman of the board of Glasgow's Citizen's Theatre in 1943, Bridie was also influential in the movement that was to lead to the Scottish Arts Council (much later Creative Scotland) and he played a strong hand in the establishment of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947.
A powerful driver in the landmark revival-performance of David Lindsay's 'The Thrie Estaitis' at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh in 1948, Bridie was also in his home city the brains behind the establishment of Glasgow's Royal Conservatoire's College of Dramatic Art in 1950. He wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock's 'Under Capricorn' (1949) and 'Stage Fright' (1950), and the then developing director very much wanted Bridie to join him in Hollywood, a proposition that the Scotsman for various reasons turned down. How can a man who achieved so much, and I have yet even to mention his own clever, witty, profound, often spectacularly absorbing dramatic work, be so seldom noticed in Scotland today?
Apart from his unfashionable middle-class credentials, Bridie does not fit within the usual Scottish literary canonical parameters as he is neither a nationalist nor a socialist. Early on though, in the 1920s, he was involved with the Scottish National Theatre Society, the most important result for Bridie personally being that it was here that he began a long and fruitful professional relationship with the English theatrical director, Tyrone Guthrie. Bridie's dramatic themes though were often Scottish, for instance, Burke and Hare in 'The Anatomist,' produced by Guthrie for the London stage in 1932, Scottish medical inventiveness in 'A Sleeping Clergyman' produced in Malvern in 1933 or 'Calvinism in Mr Bolfry' in 1943, a great hit again in war-time London, and a text which marks part of an ongoing collaboration between Bridie and that genius of a Scottish actor, Alastair Sim.
If some contemporaries were perhaps resentful, suspicious even, of a Scottish writer cutting a figure abroad (in England and America), there are those latterly who feel they have Bridie bang to rights because he disliked the work of Ena Lamont Stewart, whose 'Men Should Weep,' a tale of unjust urban squalor that in its day (1947) failed to impress anyone very much. Bridie though is sometimes cited as having single-handedly sunk Lamont's career simply because he disliked the play, and didn't want himself to stage it.
Hugely successful as playwright, as an arts administrator and – it should be said – an innovative visionary, none of this seems to count much in the face of Bridie's ill-fitting political phizzog. An important book that we need in Scottish cultural history, is an applied biography of Bridie's influential and sparkling career, both as artist and as policy and institutional maker and shaker. There is, however, no such sign of any such study, and there may again be a fairly clear politico-cultural reason for this absence.
One might suspect that Bridie does not swim well amid today's 'mainstream' art-theatre since our man was a dramatist of ideas and that really won't do with a current plethora of plays that peddle cheer-leading identity politics, or agit-prop, where one is told what to think about politics, or class, or gender, or sexuality and where one can leave one's brain at the box-office to be collected (if you really need it back) on the way out.
Bridie is a great dramatist of ambiguity, essaying the potential egotistical mania in the genius of the man of science, who might bring great advancement or ruin to his species; himself an atheist, Bridie in his dramatic work contemplates alternatively the mind-expanding advancement and the fanaticism brought to us by religion; or he essays simultaneously the transcendent beauty of art and the pettiness of the artist. His is a drama where all humans and all institutions are more or less in a permanent state of existential crisis. Bridie sets out endless questions rather than providing easy-to-digest answers for the metropolitan chattering classes, and goodness and the nefarious exist in more or less constant equilibrium in his work, both equally entangled and even mysterious at their roots.
Bridie's is a drama that does not work in today's contemporary culture which often has such shallow certitude about what is sociologically right and wrong. Bridie's frequent dramatic meditations on the difficulty of both goodness and evil have become sadly unusable and this, it might be argued, is a sign of our own contemporary existential impoverishment.
Gerard Carruthers is Francis Hutcheson professor of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow and is Bridie's modern editor in 'The Devil to Stage: Five Plays by James Bridie' (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2007).